Wherever Cartoon Saloon goes, the phrase ‘best animated film of the year’ is rarely far behind. The Irish animation studio has built themselves a golden reputation since their debut, The Secret of Kells, in 2009, an achievement all the more impressive for the fact that they’ve only released three films. Now, their fourth, the sublime Wolfwalkers, continues that proud tradition, easily 2020’s best animated movie so far, with only Pixar’s Soul looking like it could possibly snatch that crown later this year.
After broadening their horizons to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan for 2017’s The Breadwinner, Wolfwalkers sees Cartoon Saloon return to their home turf of Kilkenny. It’s 1650 and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (Simon McBurney) is occupying the town, adamant that he has been sent to civilise this land, one of the key steps of which is to chop down the surrounding forests and kill all its resident wolves. Assigned to this task is Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), an English hunter trying to balance his gruesome job with caring for his precocious daughter Robyn (Honor Kneafsey) and fitting in with the local, occupied populace.
Wolfwalkers tackles both the social and environmental effects of colonialism with candour, never underestimating its young target audience’s intelligence, weaving these themes into a story of fairytale magic and young adventurers. Robyn gets assigned a job in the castle scullery but, determined to follow in her dad’s footsteps, makes a break for the woods, where she stumbles upon the wolves’ den and its young leader, Mebh (Eva Whittaker). Mebh is a Wolfwalker, a person with a mystical ability to not only control wolves, but become one whenever her human body is asleep. A friendship between Robyn and Mebh blossoms, and they start to lay out plans to stop Cromwell and keep the wolves safe.
All Cartoon Saloon films are gorgeous, but Wolfwalkers is stunning even by their standards. Background and character designs take on influences from Ghibli, Celtic symbology, old tapestries, and woodblock prints, creating a world that is busy and full of life without ever becoming chaotic. Colours spill out from within their line art, and all the movements are beautiful, especially in the moments where we get to see the world through the wolves’ eyes, the smells and sounds of the forest becoming just as visible as its sights. It’s a visual treat throughout, with the utmost care put into every detail – just look at how Robyn and her dad’s faces slot together like jigsaw pieces, a profoundly moving little touch that never insists on being noticed, instead waiting for viewers to pick it out.
With this beauty in place, you could understand directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart resting on these laurels – even with a naff story, Wolfwalkers would be easy to recommend for its animation expertise alone – but they don’t. Every animation choice is in service of the story, from the boxy, cage-like design of the town encroaching ever further on the more colourful, free-flowing woodland to the robotic movements of the English army contrasting with Mebh and the wolves’ skittish fluidity. The conflict between conquerors and natives informs almost every moment of Wolfwalkers, and Will Collins’s screenplay isn’t afraid to go to dark places. The stakes are high and the threats feel very real, culminating in a heart in mouth finale that will leave younger viewers both terrified and delighted, in the way all the best kids’ movies should.
There are more uncomplicated joys in the story too, though. In a small and sweet way, the colonial narratives and fantastical questing occasionally give way to a tale of first love, as Robyn and Mebh become ever more entwined in each other’s lives and worlds. Wolfwalkers never settles into any one routine, letting its story run as free as the wild beasts that inhabit it, but still managing to rein it in enough that the major emotional beats land with all the weight they need.
This is a gorgeous and complex film, so filled with imagination and visual verve that repeat viewings are pretty much a must. With its perfect balance of light and dark, not to mention an all-encompassing sense of wonder, it’s one that slightly older kids will really cherish and, no matter your age, there isn’t a frame of Wolfwalkers that you wouldn’t want to hang on your wall. Family-friendly animation doesn’t come much better.